Crass Consumerism: Finding hope in the halls of Outdoor Retailer

We sent MG reporter Mike Medberry into the belly of the beast. Sort of. As in we sort of sent him and he sort of wandered down to Salt Lake City from Idaho and then sent us his thoughts on the best stuff in the world of stuff.

By Mike Medberry

Now I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m a writer who dislikes the brand of hype and quotable material that is offered to give writers words to print. And I’m not a journalist. I’ve got forbidden opinions. And when it comes to gear… frankly, there are too many superb outdoor products even to name them all, but show me what you’ve got, give me the price, and prove to me that it will last for a significant portion of my life. That’s the name of the game for me—sustainability and quality.

I went down to the Outdoor Retailer winter show in Salt Lake City because I wanted to hear writer Terry Tempest Williams and the National Park Service Chief, Jon Jarvis, say good things. And they did. Jarvis celebrated the 100th anniversary of the NPS and Williams asked the 1,000-plus listeners to do more than sell their product: They should aim to save a piece of earth and wildlife that their businesses thrive on.

After that I walked through the numbingly beautiful displays publicized by tough, studly men and tough, shapely women offering their wares and samples to potential purchasers. I felt more vulnerable than a Chinook salmon swimming up a headwater creek, as all kinds of sweet, sweet chum was thrown out to hook me. Some business offered superb value and creativity, some counted on the charming (or grating) personalities of salespeople. Some were start-ups with teeny budgets while others dominated a large piece of property in the Salt Palace and had monumental billboard advertisements. Some gave away beer and some coffee, some hired bands, others shared chocolate bon-bons as a conversation breaker, or had huge slabs of ice to show off their superior brands of footware. All sought attention of potential customers, friends, and competitors. Times were agreed upon for business meetings and meetings were had as you’d expect for a trade show.

12636845_10207089202522749_1245843440_oMore than 1,200 companies had displays. Thousands of people wandered from business to business to see what they could see, they sought out moneymaking opportunities, looked at fashions and new devices, but mostly they walked, drank, telephoned friends, met with other workers, chit-chatted, and just hung out. I was wearied just watching all of this happen and naturally I helped myself to their free alcoholic drinks and food.

Nonetheless, I found something to write about. Out of all of the businesses I chose six that appealed to me right away. All six had chutzspah. I did plenty of walking and listening. Then I talked with each of the managers or spokespersons of the audacious six about what they were selling and what drives them to sell their product. I admit that my search was quirky and each business was based on my oddball tastes. But, here ya go with all of my stinking prejudices.

ONE

Patagonia is one of the best companies when it comes to protecting the environment, selling first-rate clothing, encouraging recycling, and championing environmental organizations (and its heroes). One of the clearest commitments that Patagonia has made to protect the environment is that the independently owned business has become a B-Corporation. This Benefit Corporation allows the business to create a “general public benefit” which legally requires it to make a positive impact on society and the environment. Additionally since 2014, Patagonia has made a commitment to recycling the fluffy feathers, the down, in manufacturing their new garments. Within that commitment is what I see as the protection of thousands of ducks and geese every year. In 2016, they are instituting an accountability system for determining the source of down. Eider ducks no longer will be killed for their feathers to keep me warm! Thanks.

Patagonia spokesman, Corey Simpson said, “We’ve done the legwork knowing that other brands can promote down and provide the best product for advocating animal welfare. We’re just saying to other manufacturers that you can build good products and do it in a good way.”

I asked Simpson how Patagonia remains on the cutting edge of their business and environmental protection.

He replied: “Each of “Patagonia’s employees is committed to their passions, although they may be cut of different cloth. They all are passionate, and when they talk about making changes that makes a difference.” In my words, the management listens to what their workers say and believe. That, I thought, gives employees a say in managing their company and gives them a chance to be innovative without being criticized merely for having an opinion.

12637161_10207089198842657_532767656_oPatagonia also has an environmental grants program which as Simpson said, gives money to “grassroots groups, for on the ground work, and to people who do the real work (of conservation).”  Patagonia has a new book, Tools for Grassroots Activists, with the intention of making environmental organizations more effective in protecting the environment. But in my world it is Patagonia’s catchwords “Don’t buy what you don’t need” provides the last word on their philosophy; championing the legacy of Doug Thomkins as an environmental hero clinches the gold ring.

TWO

12633075_10207089204802806_631390716_oThe artfulness and elegance of sweaters made by Dale of Norway halted me to look at, what?—sweaters? Yeah, sweaters: sleek, comfortable, colorful sweaters, and it wasn’t only the wearers of the wool that stopped me. I swear I am a magpie for the bright, complicated, pretty colors of a sweater!

Come to find out that that company has been in business for 130 years, they use 100 percent natural wool, they have their business in Dalekvam, Norway, hire locally, have sweatered the Norway ski team since 1956, and stand solidly behind their knits. All of this appealed to me, though I own very few sweaters (they’re very old ones with holes in the elbows and armpits…). I’ve seen many corporations compromise their products for sale in the U.S. because of competition from Asia and others that treat workers as mere drones or worse, but Dale of Norway doesn’t happen to be one of them. Part of that is the dedication of workers to the business, the fine quality of the sweaters, and the low cost of production. The factory still lies on the bank of the Dale River and is powered by the inexpensive hydropower from waterfalls.

Mark Bruce, Production and Design Manager for Dale of Norway, spoke in a smooth, understated British accent. “We have a huge wealth of knowledge that we can take from our original designs.” Bruce explained that the bright colors that I saw came from the style of wool spinning and that Dale of Norway sells a high quality, long-lasting garment. “We work in a small village outside of Bergen and have to treat people right.” Two people who have worked there for more than 30 years are quoted in a brochure that “The experienced staff follows every step of the production with their personal touch and attention. This is the secret behind the unique qualities of the Dale of Norway garments.” I thought it was audacious and wholly appropriate in this angst-filled day to brag about your longest serving employees.

THREE

Emergency Essentials caught me with their steaming packets when I was hungry. “What’s this?” I asked Matt Putnam, the sales manager for the business. He said “It’s a Hydroheat.” Say what? “You pour in some water and put in the bottom of a pot and it can cook a meal in 10 minutes.” Cool! “No hot….”

HydroHeat showingI recall a long, solo dayhike on one solstice in Idaho when I was stranded in a lightning storm. Then it snowed, which seemed improbable or impossible, but it certainly was cold and I hunkered down for a night without any appropriate gear. The matches were damp enough and the wood wet enough so that I couldn’t start a fire. My fingers became too cold to work one of those kid-proof lighters that I carried as a backup tool. The upshot is that I lived, but it was a very uncomfortable night with pine boughs stuffed into my wet jacket for warmth and in my teashirt for a pillow. T’was an itchy night, believe me. But one or two of the hydro-heat packets that I could’ve bought for a song and carried in my pocket, would have been more than a God-send. Heat and food were at a premium out in the woods on that cold, stormy day.

It may be that those packets can be dumped out into my garden after they have provided their heat but I’m not sure. I’m told that they are only limestone when they’re spent. Well ok, they’re a damned good thing when needed.  Sold!

FOUR

12620773_10207089197962635_786894970_oThe next grabber was the Steri-PEN. It seemed like some device that could be used to treat a diabetic mishap—it was was, however, an ultraviolet light, a finger-sized water purifier. But what the hell is it? Turns out it kills microbes in water in roughly a minute, as long as the water is vaguely translucent. You just stick the light underwater and turn it on. This baby should work in mountain streams and most sources of water that look slightly palatable. For more turbid water sources the water should be filtered.  I’m figuring that means a paper coffee filter.

“The PENs have been around since 2001,” Kayla Moore, Director of North American Sales for SteriPEN said, “but we haven’t had a budget for advertising until last year when a company invested in our product. We’re here to do bigger and better things with our product. We can help with camping and hiking, but in the end we want to provide safe water for third world countries, so we really need to branch out.”

The SteriPEN beats the heck out of a heavy pump that always has one tube coming into the dirty water and another going out to my water bottle (which I have been known, somehow, to occasionally reverse and spoil the water). It’ll fix up my water on the Payette National Forest, in the fountains in India, in cattle troughs in Ketchum, but I’ll have to experiment in the canyons of southern Utah. I don’t mind living a little dangerously and the PEN would be soooo light to carry!

FIVE

Don Scott at GSI Outdoors saw me fingering the shiny, silver, one-cup expresso maker and eyeing the four-service cook pot. He said, “May I help you.”

“Sure. Is there someone that I can talk to about your pots and coffeemaker?”

“Well, the public information person will be around and….

“Naw, that’s okay. I was looking for a person who could tell me something about the efficiency of your product. That’s ok. I’m just looking around…”

“Would you care to talk with our Research Director?

“Sure.”

“He should be here in about half an hour. Could I respond to your questions in the meantime?”

“Yeah, I guess. Well, I’m interested in the espresso maker and want to take a picture of it. It’s pretty.” It was very shiny and silvery, like the sun.

“Ok, just take it down, set it in the light, and take a picture of it.”

12591857_10207089201282718_1175328780_oI did just that when Kurt Gauss, the Director of Research and Development, came over and guided me to a four-piece cook kit. He explained that everything had an essential purpose and he impressed me that each piece in the kit fit together like a bunch of Russian Dolls. I saw that GSI created a seemingly mundane product that shined and had real beauty, efficiency, and usefulness. They had been well designed and built. That appealed to me but the 4-in-1 pot kit seemed to be a family kit, which was more than I would ever need. However, I thought about pocketing that cute little espresso maker. I looked at it standing there on its little pedestal. GSI was very efficient and careful in their designs; there was little gee-whix glitz and pandering to passers-by, plenty of class, and nothing but damn good products. By God, I want one of those sweet little expresso makers!

SIX

BioLite stoveThe sixth company is BioLite which seems to owe its existence to their study of thermoelectric processes: turning the heat of fire into electricity. Alchemy! Their business is to sell lightweight campstoves that generate electricity while allowing you to cook dinner on that stove. It also provides light, in addition to the fire’s glow. The stove works by burning gathered wood, mostly sticks I guess, and the company diversifies its products by also selling solar panels and batteries. Their mission is to take stoves to sub-Sahara Africa and provide electricity in rural areas.

At 2.1 pounds, a BioLite campstove is an intriguing addition to my backpacking gear, as it could replace my standard gasoline stove.  There are a bewildering number of products that BioLite sells and I thought that the company should work on a few of their best sellers, define and share the best technical information with customers, increase the efficiency of the thermoelectric process, and streamline its offerings. It occurred to me that charging my cellphone may require a lot of time sitting around burning wood, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how much. All I know is that it might take time from fishing. BioLite is operating in a golden glow of optimism and growth for the time being, but they’d better focus on what sells and deliver excellent information on each product or go broke. However, with their enthusiasm for making electricity out of fire, I hope they’ll live long and prosper.

So there you have it: my favorite six products at the 2016 winter OR gathering. I have ignored the oriental fabric making geniuses because they are all changing rapidly; some of these businesses will remain, but some will fail in the recession that China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries are experiencing. Anyone could see that ‘what goes up must come down’ but none would dare predict the future, as the cheap workplaces are diminishing. Or moving. That defines the blindness of Democracy and the arrogance of enterprise, but I expect that the six companies will learn from the Chinese recession, right?

 

3 thoughts on “Crass Consumerism: Finding hope in the halls of Outdoor Retailer”

  1. We boiled a pound of steamers in Hydroheat and it worked like a charm. Up next, rabbit. Sorta sick, I know. But that’s the way the ball bounces here @ Experimental Backcountry Food & Cooking Society Butte, Montana Chapter. Thanks for the tip!

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